For 40 years, Jonathan Kozol has written passionately about inner-city schools and students. In Kozol's latest book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, he blasts the U.S. Supreme Court for dismantling the Brown v. Board of Education decision over the past 15 years and essentially re-segregating American schools. (See book review, page 61.) In advance of Kozol speaking this week in Portland, WW talked to the 69-year-old author from his home in Byfield, Mass., about segregation in U.S. schools and how an old and controversial option-busing students across district lines-might be the answer.
WW: Why write one more book about education in America?
Jonathan Kozol: It's not another of those "school recipe" books which says, "Here are seven ways to turn it all around." The point is to challenge people to the abolition of apartheid education. People are always saying, "We know a way to have good segregated schools," and then they'll come up with a suggestion, for example, for small, separate and unequal schools. Or separate and unequal schools with more rigorous curriculum and repeated testing. Or where black kids march around in uniforms. But they never confront the fact that they're segregated and unequal schools.
What help is that without a recipe to turn things around?
The book basically makes three utterly unfashionable proposals. No.1, we need an all-out battle against residential segregation. You hear sometimes black folks don't believe in integration anymore? The only black folks who say that are bombastic TV charlatans. When you give inner-city parents a choice and say, "Would you object to a 30-minute bus ride every day if your little girl could go to a school system where 95 percent of the kids graduate and go to college?" I have never yet met a black parent who wouldn't jump at the chance.
The second main argument is to scrap the entire system of school funding based on local property wealth and also state assistance to the local districts. Some states can afford to provide far more assistance than other states. So even if Oregon was ever equal within its state borders, Oregon would still be spending much more per pupil than Mississippi. Every dollar spent for public education should come from the federal treasury. And if this means we'll need a far more steeply graduated federal income tax to pay for it, so be it-that's the way it ought to be.
And the third proposal is to stop looking to local think tanks and institutes to come up with trivial, incremental plans for improving our schools, particularly by drilling children endlessly for examinations.
And you're calling for a return to busing?
I don't care if we use buses or stretch limousines. If white folks feel their hearts are breaking for the poor black kids, let them pay for limousines or let them mobilize their own resources and use a fleet of private cars. The white media has so successfully stigmatized the word "busing." It's hypocritical, because the overwhelming majority of American kids go to school by bus. Most rich people that I know in the East don't even send their kids to their own good public schools; they put them on a bus to ride an hour every day to go to the best prep schools.
How can you criticize No Child Left Behind when backers of the federal law say it forces a hard look at struggling minorities?
That's baloney. We didn't need President Bush to give us tests to find out that kids who go to the poorest, most segregated schools score far below the kids who go to beautiful, wealthy schools where teachers are paid twice as much and classes are half the size. The worst result is that good principals in low-scoring schools are so terrified, forcing teachers to spend half or more of a year doing test prep instead of teaching.
What keeps you going in the face of all this bad news?
I always feel optimistic when I'm in the classroom with children, especially the children who are young enough so they haven't yet been damaged by the discovery that their country doesn't like them very much. Even in the most miserable and ugly overcrowded schools I visit, there are all these wonderful kids, and they always fill me with a sense of optimism as to what we could do if this country would reach into its pocket and spend the kind of money it should.
Kozol speaks at First Baptist Church, 909 SW 11th Ave., 228-4651 (Powell's). 7:30 pm Friday, Sept. 30. Free.
Kozol also will be speaking at a fundraiser for Rethinking Schools at Westminster Fireside Room, 1624 NE Hancock St., from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm Saturday, Oct. 1. Tickets are $25. Contact Bill Bigelow at 282-6848 or at bbpdx.aol.com for more information.